Originally Published in The Hill
By Jesúss Gerena, FII’s Managing Partner, Opinion Contributor
As the Trump agenda begins to unfurl, millions of Americans living in poverty are bracing for the worst. Repeal of ObamaCare coupled with an overall shrinking of the social “safety net” could be devastating. While these proposals will be fought tooth and nail, we also need to find new ways to empower struggling families.
For decades, the status quo for politicians and non-profits has been a top-down, “help-the-less-fortunate” approach to poverty. That’s not a criticism. People living on the edge need food and shelter more than anything else. And our nation’s leaders – from Washington, D.C. to all 50 statehouses – must help ensure survival for those families.
Still, the world has changed since President Johnson nobly declared a “war on poverty” and created the social safety net more than fifty years ago. We have new tools, new technology and new ways of socializing and communicating. So perhaps we can turn a potential crisis moment into an opportunity for families to escape poverty, not just survive it.
Tax credits, food subsidies and minimum wage increases all help on the “surviving” side of our national poverty crisis. But there are other ways for families to end the cycle of going in and out of poverty so they can build a more permanent and secure future.
One question that rarely gets asked by well-intentioned policy experts is: What if we asked the families themselves “what works”?
Here comes a not-very-humble brag: our approach does just that. Family Independence Initiative’s model doesn’t just give families more of a voice in the solutions; it makes families the only voice.
The Family Independence Initiative is made up of about 8,000 moms, dads, kids and other family members who come together in ten cities around the country to figure out solutions for day-to-day challenges like finding child care, earning extra spending money, saving for a down payment on a home and on and on.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the experience of millions of families since the founding of our nation. Who doesn’t remember stories of our parents and grandparents caucusing with neighbors in the apartment upstairs or the house down the block to figure out ways to overcome day-to-day challenges?
From families who just arrived from Europe, Asia and Central and South America to African Americans who fought the devastation of slavery and discrimination, getting out of poverty and staying out of it is a quintessential American story.
Now, here’s the 21st century twist.
FII families set goals for solving day-to-day challenges and track their progress on FII’s online social networking platform, UpTogether. Our staff tracks what is working for families and invests in those solutions.
Just like Google can steer you away from traffic and Amazon can spotlight a new flat panel TV, we use technology to identify and invest in the ways individual families are lifting themselves out of poverty and building a stable future.
Our model of trusting and investing in families works.
After two years with FII, families on average have shown a 20 percent increase in total income and a 62 percent decrease in reliance on poverty-assistance subsidies. This is good for those families and good for our nation. People with more dollars of their own contribute to the economy and, just as important, dwindling government dollars can be used for other needs.
The Family Independence Initiative is growing, and we hope to bring our model to more cities. And we’re not the typical non-profit organization; we’re open source. We believe that the principles we’ve laid out, along with the data tools we’ve pioneered, can be replicated anywhere so that families everywhere have the mobility to leave poverty for good.
By proving that people can escape the grip of poverty as well as their reliance on public assistance, we can also satisfy the too-often competing political interests of the left and the right in the United States.
Think about it: people leaving poverty, government spending reduced, Democrats and Republicans happy. This is the kind of bipartisan, “what works” solution Americans crave. More important, it’s a way to deliver on the American Dream for thousands of families.
Jesús Gerena is Managing Partner of Family Independence Initiative, a national non-profit organization that trusts and invests in families and the initiative they take to escape poverty.